Last Saturday, the Elon University football team experienced something it had not experienced in 35 days.
“It felt great to win,” said junior offensive lineman Gavin Billings.
But that win, a 42-31 victory over Southern Conference foe Western Carolina University, was tempered by the reality that more winning needs to come. And it starts tomorrow Oct. 27 at Rhodes Stadium against Furman University.
“It was the beginning of a lot of winning that we need to do in the next four weeks,” Billings said. “That’s our mission now, is just to win out for the rest of the season. But it definitely felt good to get a good homecoming win.”
Against the Catamounts, senior quarterback Thomas Wilson chucked five touchdown passes, three to senior wide receiver Aaron Mellette, as the Phoenix earned its first SoCon win of the season. But it was just enough. Elon lead 35-13 going into the second half, but scored just seven points the rest of the way as Western Carolina clawed back.
“We were excited going into halftime,” said junior safety Chandler Wrightenberry. “We got a bit complacent out there. We can’t let up. That’s kind of what we did a little in the second half. We’ve got to play four quarters.”
That 60-minute mantra has been used several times by Elon head coach Jason Swepson this season. When asked if his team had “finished” against Western Carolina, something he had not seen before, his answer was clear.
“No,” he said. “We kept the lead and we didn’t lose the lead, so that was good. All those other games, those were back-and-forth games.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Swepson sees not turning the ball over as the key to playing a full “60-minute game.”
“It’s just a little disappointing coming out of half and then giving up ten points,” Swepson said. “Putting the ball on the ground twice in the third quarter and letting them climb back was something that we can’t afford to do against the rest of the opponents we’re going to play against or we can’t recover.”
Freshman running back Tracey Coppedge and senior wide receiver Jeremy Peterson both had fumbles in the third quarter, when Western Carolina scored ten points in the first 4:28. Seven came after Western Carolina cornerback Elijer Martinez scooped up Peterson’s fumble and returned it 34 yards to the Elon 8. The next play, Catamounts running back Michael Johnson rumbled eight yards for a touchdown to make the score 35-23.
Swepson said the key to winning Saturday was winning the second half.
“Play better in the second half, really a better third quarter,” he said. “That’s going to be our goal. We’ve been starting the game fast the majority of the year. I don’t want to play catch-up. I want to come out of halftime close or with the lead and really have a solid second half.”
The defense is keying on stopping the run, something it has been less than adequate at doing this season. Elon gives up an average of 223.6 rushing yards per game, third-worst in the SoCon. With Furman back Jerodis Williams, the second-leading rusher in the conference, leading the Paladins’ offensive attack, stopping the run this week will be crucial.
Wrightenberry compared Williams to Wofford fullback Eric Breitenstein, who ran for a conference-record 321 yards against Elon Sept. 29.
“Watching film on him, he’s a strong, tough runner,” he said. “He’s not too fast. He’s kind of like Breitenstein from Wofford. He’s not super fast, but just strong, balanced runner. We’ve just got to stop him. If we do that, then we’ll have a good chance of winning.”
The Phoenix will have to try to do that possibly without senior linebacker Blake Thompson, who missed the Western Carolina game and may be available Saturday, and junior defensive lineman Jay Brown, who is dealing with turf toe and will be a game-time decision.
The lack of depth on the defensive side of the ball due to injuries has become an issue, but Wrightenberry is not concerned.
“There’s some,” he said. “We’ve still got everybody out there that we need. People have just got to step up and make plays, fill in when they need to. We’re figuring it out.”
Regardless of how it happened and who is out there, that win was huge. The Phoenix just has to get the rest of them.
“It feels great,” Wrightenberry said. “Like Coach (defensive coordinator Ed) Pinkham says, it’s hard to get a win in the Southern Conference, so every time you get a win, you have to enjoy it.”